“Awful lot of white men,” my mum mused, breath tight in her chest but trying to sound cheery. It was my first day at Cambridge, and touring the grounds of where I would be living for the next three years, we’d stumbled upon my college’s formal dining hall, walls dripping with portraits of famous alumni and former college masters. It really was quite staggering – but the nervous, first-year me pretended not to notice. And for the next three years, I continued trying to pretend.
The University of Cambridge approaches race uncritically. At best, like in the case of my college’s dining hall, this means being surrounded by faces that do not look like your own. At worst, the legacies of colonialism and slavery – which directly affected my ancestors as well as those of most students of colour at the university – are erased, overlooked, and thus silently condoned.
This week the university announced that it will launch a two-year study into the extent to which it benefited from slavery, saying: “We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it.” Well, it’s a step; but, as many have pointed out, one that is long overdue. The issue of decolonising the university isn’t just an intellectual problem, it is also a problem that has tangible effects on its students for generations to come.
In 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign swept Cape Town and came to Oriel College, at the University of Oxford. At the time, I was in my first year at Cambridge and it was the talk of the town. Headlines focused on student “snowflakes” and the perceived ethics of “rewriting history”, but they overlooked the glaringly obvious: the campaign’s focus wasn’t on the statue of Cecil Rhodes, but on how to address the institutional racism embedded within university structures and cultures.
For black students, walking past a statue of a slave owner every day was a continual reminder that the university wasn’t interested in creating a space that students of colour could call home
When we talk about universities’ involvement in colonialism and slavery, it’s important to remember that we are not just talking about issues of the past, but the message sent to current students and academics by overlooking histories of racism.
Attending a university that has been complicit in white supremacist thinking is draining. But attending one that then fails to acknowledge its role in that history can be worse.
For black students in Oxford, walking past a statue of a slave owner who believed that “[white people] are the finest race in the world” every day, without so much as a plaque to contextualise its meaning, was a continual reminder that the university wasn’t interested in creating a space that students of colour could call home. It asks black students to adapt to the racism of the institution, avoiding the bother of changing the institution itself.
I’ve seen for myself how this can take its toll on the mental health and wellbeing of students of colour. Next to Rhodes Must Fall, Cambridge didn’t have an equivalent symbolic “moment” that captured the imagination of the media, but the issue of decolonisation was still pressing on campus. Students had to sit in dining halls that showcased stolen goods from their ancestors, study thinkers who saw them as subhuman without criticism, and subscribe to academic ideology that saw the “west” as the beacon of all knowledge.
When I started working on race and wellbeing as the university’s welfare and rights officer, students would tell me every day about how their mental health was worn down as a result of simply having to exist in a space that was not built with them in mind. The university’s priorities were clear: reputation, always, over students themselves.
The announcement of this study is a tiny step towards change. It sends a small message to Cambridge students that the university is interested in unthinking its history.
But we should resist the temptation to see it as an isolated newsbite that on its own will address and overhaul the horrors of the past. One piece of research does not systemic change make. It cannot be overstated that the main potential for change lies in how that research is harnessed and deployed.
As the journalist Gabby Hinsliff acknowledged, we should not only anticipate but hope for more aspects of Cambridge’s colonial legacy to be called into question, including statues, names of buildings, libraries and parts of the curriculum. I’d also like to see the university follow in the footsteps of the University of Glasgow, which launched a reparative justice programme. Decolonisation is a comprehensive project. It demands to be part of reimagining the very fundamentals of the university.
Decolonisation is now on the agenda within the university in a way that it simply wasn’t previously – the task now is to ensure that this is not some rudimentary box-ticking exercise
There’s no way to talk about decolonisation’s effect on students without acknowledging the role that students have played in getting the issue on the table in the first place. The most powerful agitators have and will always be students of colour themselves – groups such as the Black Cantabs Project, FLY and Decolonise Cambridge, whose work far predates any acknowledgement of decolonisation from university management.
Make no mistake: the lion’s share of the work has been done tirelessly, and voluntarily, by students. And this is an issue of wellbeing too – to continually fight within Cambridge’s rigid and highly bureaucratic structures is tiring.
When we think about the heavy role played by student-led groups, news of the Cambridge study reveals that decolonisation is now on the agenda within the central university in a way that it simply wasn’t previously. That is to the credit of those student and staff activists. Now, their task is to ensure that this is not some rudimentary box-ticking exercise.
As archaic, inaccessible, majority-white institutions seek to show they are improving access, we should remember that changing the way our universities look, think and operate with regards to race first requires taking a long, hard look in the mirror at the tools that built them. Interrogating the past is the first of many requirements to demonstrate some level of accountability for current and future students of colour.
So go forth. Your students are listening.